Spanish Practices

Edwin Williamson

  • Collected Poems 1957-1987 by Octavio Paz and Eliot Weinberger
    Carcanet, 669 pp, £25.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 85635 787 1
  • Sor Juana: Her Life and her World by Octavio Paz, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
    Faber, 547 pp, £27.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 571 15399 2
  • A Sor Juana Anthology translated by Alan Trueblood, with a foreword by Octavio Paz
    Harvard, 248 pp, £23.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 674 82120 3

Octavio Paz occupies a unique position in the Spanish-speaking world. He is the foremost living poet of the language as well as being one of the most authoritative interpreters of the Hispanic situation, a pensador in the tradition of Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Rodo and Mariategui. Poetry, however, has always been the vital source of his ideas. His work as cultural historian, political essayist and editor of Vuelta, the most influential journal in Latin America today, is rooted in his belief that the poetic conscience must be brought to bear on the central issues of contemporary history. The Collected Poems brings together for the first time Paz’s mature work in a splendidly produced bilingual edition. Over half of the poems have not been rendered into English before and it is very gratifying to find here the most recent collection, the superb A Tree Within, which came out in 1987. This book is something of a coup by Carcanet.

The collection begins appropriately with Sunstone, an extended reverie which incorporates the sum of his poetic experience until 1957. The title refers to an Aztec calendar stone whose cycle of 584 days is reflected in the number of lines of the poem. This correlation evinces Paz’s perennial concern to escape contingency by looking for a mythic dimension to personal experience. The Surrealist influence – his friendship with André Breton in the late Forties left an indelible mark on his poetry – is evident in the visionary intensity of the language. But despite its oneiric strangeness, the poem describes a purposeful quest for a fullness of being which time routinely denies the poet except for intermittent epiphanies granted him in the love of woman, the universal ‘other’. The poem undulates through successive states of consciousness, interweaving memories of war and atrocity with personal recollections of people, places and events. Impelled by its own inner momentum, its flow is punctuated by sudden spasms of joy until it eventually finds its way back to the beginning:

       a course of a river that turns, moves on,
doubles back, and comes full circle,
forever arriving.

These lines repeat the opening sequence of metaphors and, ending with a colon, trace an image of history as eternal recurrence, though ‘forever arriving’, lacking the final spurting rhythm of y llega siempre, fails to capture the narrowness of this victory over the contingent and the terminal.

Salvation for history through love and poetry was to remain the romantic heart of Paz’s enterprise. From 1959, when he returned to live in Paris, the search for pure being was extended under the influence of Mallarmé, from whom he derived a metaphysics of the poetic word as a primal reality buried under layers of dead language. The desire to cleanse the word from the slime of functional usage led to experiments with phonic resonance – intensive punning and internal rhyme – and typographical layout: spaced-out lines, stanzas suspended in mid-page, counterpointed islets of text, with the odd word exiled to a margin. Such experiments can be seen at their most radical in Topoemas (1968), a cross between Apollinaire’s calligrammes and oriental ideograms.

Though the linear text remained the norm, Paz would continue to break up or displace lines to allow white spaces to show through, creating a pleasing effect of airiness which corresponded graphically to his belief in the transcendent potential of poetic language. Indeed, at their best, Paz’s disjointed texts read with the freshness of a breeze: words appear to have been swept up by a wave of air and relieved of their burden of reference, to circulate in some undetermined space between the material world and whatever might lie beyond it. When they fail to come off, such poems are like arrested mobiles, with inert images hanging off a predictable set of ideas.

The mystical strain was more fully developed after 1962, when Paz became Mexican Ambassador in India for six years. His reactions to a new landscape and a new human reality are recorded in East Slope (1962-1968), a miscellany ranging from snapshots of nature or ironic sketches of social types to long meditations prompted by monuments and places where, surprisingly, as in ‘Happiness in Herat’, the quietism of Hindu mysticism is rejected for a more dynamic vision of a natural world transfigured into the ‘perfection of the finite’. In the East, Paz recognises the Europeanness of his heritage as a Mexican: he refuses to discount material reality in the quest for plenitude of being.

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